Caterers share recipes for simple and sensational holiday appetizers


November 05, 1995|By PETER JENSEN

Like turkey on Thanksgiving, fruitcake at Christmas and champagne on New Year's Eve, the arrival of the holidays means it's time for the seasonal party standards: cheese balls, onion dip and those little cocktail wieners.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Not that holiday parties can't be fun and exciting with ordinary food. Good company and a charming host or hostess can be a winning formula whether your cuisine is haute or simply Terra Haute.

But fine food, like an exceptional host, can help elevate a party into greatness. Guests appreciate really delicious finger food. It improves their mood, relaxes them, encourages conversation and, at the very least, gives them something to do with their hands.

The only problem is, it's a lot easier to trot out the cheese ball. Party-givers have plenty to worry about, from remembering the name of the boss' wife to making sure there's a place to stash coats.

If your answer to this dilemma is to hire a caterer, congratulations. That's a wonderful idea. Your guests will love you for it.

Unfortunately, not everyone can hire a professional every time a few people come over to the house this time of year. Even those who can afford such indulgence may want to do the cooking themselves every once in a while.

So, in something of a public service, five of Baltimore's leading caterers were asked to produce a holiday appetizer capable of sending your guests into a state of bliss. The appetizers had to be delicious, but they also had to be simple.

These are recipes that don't require a culinary-arts degree to prepare. They may demand a little extra care than opening a jar of wieners, but certainly no more time than baking a birthday cake.

Consider the St. Andre cheese torta, a classic offering from Charles Levine Inc. of Owings Mills. It looks a bit like a cheesecake. Underneath its cream cheese exterior are layers of spinach and broccoli rape pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes. It can be served with thin slices of French bread or a good-quality cracker.

The torta can be prepared up to three days in advance and served at room temperature. Little fuss or muss, but far more impressive than that party standard: little cubes of Cheddar and Swiss with a box of saltines.

"People love it and ask for it," said Charles Levine, who has offered it for 10 years. "Visually, it's very pretty. It's an hors d'oeuvre that sophisticated people will understand and others will also like."

Mr. Levine recommends serving the torta with fresh herbs or perhaps an assortment of fruit and nuts or whole vegetables. Presentation is important, he said, and deserves as much attention as the menu.

"Most of the world expects a little bit of effort," he said. "But the biggest advice I could give is to use plain, room-temperature foods. Don't plan a lot of hors d'oeuvres that have to be passed [around]."

Another way to make a cook's job easier is to make sure that appetizers are bite-size. No silverware is required when food can just be popped into a guest's mouth.

A dainty offering that is sure to wins plaudits is the jeweled cocktail tartlet created by the Classic Catering People. A cream cheese pastry with a custard and vegetable filling, it is simple but impressive.

The tartlet is mild in flavor, but striking in appearance. Best of all, tartlets don't drip or require toothpicks, and can be prepared in advance and served cold, hot or at room temperature. Who could ask for more convenience?

"The ideal hors d'oeuvre is self-contained," said Ansela S.

Dopkin, a principal in the Owings Mills firm. "When you're finished eating it, there's nothing left. There's nothing worse than being left with a handful of toothpicks."

Mrs. Dopkin likes the tartlets best after they've been reheated in an oven -- not a microwave -- for a minute or two before serving. They go well with drinks, help balance out spicy food, and are easy to make.

"I think people are sometimes too ambitious," she said. "If everything has to be heated, the hostess becomes a chef and she can't pay attention to her guests."

Another party standard, the raw-vegetable platter, has been updated by the firm of Great Occasions as a roasted vegetable antipasto. The vegetables -- peppers, squash, eggplant or practically anything that is in season -- can be grilled or roasted in the oven a day in advance and chilled. They are served with a peppered goat cheese spread on slices of focaccia bread.

The whole presentation can literally be pulled out of the refrigerator when guests arrive. Flavored with an herb-infused olive oil, garlic, freshly grated Reggiano Parmigiano cheese and a splash of balsamic vinegar, the vegetables are one of Great Occasions' most popular selections.

"The big, old vegetable basket doesn't cut it," said Ami Taubenfeld, owner of the East Baltimore company. "This is a one-pan dish, easy to make and the presentation is gorgeous. You can use it as a centerpiece. It's very '90s."

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